On a rainy Sunday afternoon, a Love & Action ministry team stops by Mary’s hospital room. Bright crayon artwork drawn by the young woman’s oldest child adorns the walls, but her face is drawn with pain. She swims in and out of consciousness as the four-member team stands by her bed and prays. Sweat dampens her thinning black hair. Dark facial blotches and fibrous purple sores in the comers of her mouth leave no doubt: At age 34, Mary is dying of AIDS.

Team leader Jeff Collins places his hand on Mary’s forehead and hoarsely whispers, “Jesus loves you, Maryvery, very much.” Though the pain, medication, and fibers growing in her mouth leave her barely able to speak, she echoes, “He loves me.”

Leaving Mary, Jeff and the team head to the pediatrics ward for a visit with Robbie, Mary’s 18-month-old son. At first cranky from being wakened from his afternoon nap, Robbie is soon playing with his visitors and, like any toddler, showing off budding walking skills. Robbie’s brightly colored backpack, however, is not a toy, but a lifeline, pumping the anti-AIDS drug AZT into his tiny body. As an intravenous drug user, Mary unknowingly infected both her husband and her unborn child. Doctors predict that Robbie will be dead within a year.

Jeff Collins, director of the Annapolis, Maryland-based ministry Love & Action, has become part pastor, part crusader, part weeping prophet when it comes to AIDS. A former parish minister, Collins coordinates the work of 150 volunteers in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas. Their teams visit not only Mary and Robbie but hundreds of other AIDS patients in some 15 hospitals and clinics.

Sitting in a dark corner of a shabby hospital chapel where Love & Action volunteers have just concluded a prayer session with another patient, Collins says he sees much of himself in the patients. “They are afraid to talk. Their image of God is what they receive from the church as a whole, and so often, because the church has rejected them for being homosexuals or drug users or prostitutes, they think God hates them too.”

Collins knows such fear and rejection firsthand, and whether in a private conversation in a hospital chapel or in lectures to church leaders, he speaks openly about the path that led him to AIDS ministry.

The Hated Thing Transformed

Collins attended a fundamentalist high school and college, earned top honors at both, and was deeply involved in ministry. But he continued to be plagued by homosexual desires. While doing graduate studies, Collins became homosexually active.

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“During the next six-and-a-half years,” he recalls, “even though I finished seminary and became associate pastor of a church, nobody ever knew that three or four nights a week I was hanging out at a gay bar and living a double life.”

Finally, at a church revival, Collins cried out to God for help and forgiveness. He left his church job, received professional counseling, and went back to seminary. Collins married, had a daughter, and moved to Washington, D.C., where he headed up a Christian human-rights organization, lobbying on behalf of persecuted believers and organizing congressional fact-finding tours around the world.

But then Collins was plunged into another mental hell as news reports about AIDS began to proliferate. Realizing that his former behavior put him and his family at risk, Collins struggled with fear for two years, secretly sure he had the disease.

Even though he tested negative, Collins’s life was in disarray. He left his job, and eventually he sought psychiatric help. “I felt someone like me could never again serve the Lord. I cried out for God to help me, but I couldn’t forget the past,” he remembers.

Collins spent three weeks at a Christian hospital in a California desert receiving counseling, and praying, singing hymns, reading the Bible. “Finally, the Lord came to me, and in a real and beautiful way—just as if he were sitting here right next to me—said, ‘Jeff, go back to your family and friends and tell them the great things I’ve done for you. And the thing that you’ve hated most about yourself, the thing that you’ve run from for 18 years, the thing that you never wanted anyone else to know about, is going to be the thing that I will use to glorify myself so that other people will reach out and get help.’ ”

Help For The Holocaust

Silence hangs over the church basement where Collins once again finishes telling his story—this time to an audience of affluent, baby-boomer churchgoers. Some, who knew him before, are stunned. Many have tears on their cheeks. But Collins presses on. “The church has got to behave as Jesus would behave in the midst of this epidemic,” he says. His insistent voice repeats the argument he gives wherever he speaks. “We need to minister to individuals who are bound by sin as Jesus would. We need to love them, whether they’re gay or straight, and embrace them as Jesus would embrace them. We must let them know that God loves them very, very much.”

Collins sees educating church people as an integral part of the ministry, but he is often frustrated by the difficulty of motivating people to act.

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“Many of our conservative evangelical churches are frozen in their response to the AIDS epidemic,” he says. Yet, as the epidemic continues to spiral, Collins says the church will be forced to deal with the disease—not just because it is God’s will that Christians have compassion on the sick, but also because the disease is spreading within the church.

“There isn’t a church of any size in America that is going to be able to escape this problem. Our own sons and daughters are going to be coming down with AIDS,” he says.

Christians from more than 300 churches of various denominations have now joined Collins as Love & Action prayer partners or volunteers. About 500 volunteers have gone through training in hospital visitation and ministry to persons with AIDS. Nine regional committees organize the volunteers and act as support groups. While the ministry began as a local effort, it is quickly gaining national attention, with new chapters being organized in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Delaware. Collins and other Love & Action workers have taken their AIDS workshops on the road, speaking at churches and Christian campuses. And Collins is working with a coalition of Christian AIDS ministries to set up a toll-free crisis hotline to refer callers to the nearest evangelical AIDS ministry.

Still, Love & Action faces much misunderstanding from churches who feel the ministry interferes with God’s judgment on homosexuals. More liberal churches criticize the ministry for not accepting the gay lifestyle as valid.

“The rejection is hard to take,” Collins says. “You really want the churches to get involved, to realize that this is a holocaust, but that it is also perhaps the greatest opportunity for Christian witness and ministry the church will ever see.”

To Make God Known

Tory points to a small overnight bag in the corner of his dingy hospital room. “That’s all I have,” he says. “I’ve lost my home, my health insurance, and I’ve had to declare bankruptcy. But if it hadn’t been for AIDS, I wouldn’t know Jesus.” Not yet disabled by the disease, Tory is being released, and he shares with Collins and his team his plans to return to his hometown of San Francisco.

“I’m going to shout the name of Jesus,” he says. “I’m going to walk the streets of San Francisco and proclaim the gospel. I’m going to tell them that through Jesus, there is a way out of compulsive sexual behavior and drugs.”

Collins’s voice breaks with emotion when he talks about persons with AIDS. In the often intense feelings surrounding AIDS, friendships form deep, and Collins grows close to those he helps.

“This sort of shocks people, but I can say without a doubt that some of the greatest Christians I have ever met are dying of AIDS,” he says. “These are people who have no materialistic ambitions in life. Their only desire is to know Jesus, and through the remainder of their days, to make him known. It’s people like that who inspire us and keep us going.”

By Kim A. Lawton.

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